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Prestigious historical geographer passes away

Peking University, Oct 23, 2013: Hou Renzhi, a renowned professor at PKU and China's most prominent scholar in the field of historical geography, passed away on Oct 22 at the age of 102.


Professor Hou Renzhi has devoted himself to the development of Modern Chinese historical geography and the urban construction of Beijing.


Professor Hou Renzhi (file photo)




Memories in PKU

Hou was born in Zaoqiang, Hebei Province, in December 1911. At the age of 21, he entered the History Department of Yenching University where he followed the renowned historian Gu Jiegang (1893-1980) and later received his Bachelor of Art and Master of Art degrees. In 1940, a year after his marriage with Zhang Weiying, Hou continued his research in Yenching University as an instructor in history. His wedding was held on campus, with John Leighton Stuart, then Yenching president, as the marriage witness.


During the time of the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, Hou was arrested several times for organizing and participating in anti-Japanese movements. After China's victory of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, Hou went to the Department of Geography at Liverpool University in England in 1946 summer to pursue a PhD degree in philosophy. He went back to China right after he finished studies, three days before the founding of the People's Republic of China.


In1952, when academic institutions and departments in China underwent reorganization, Hou had several titles in PKU, including Deputy Director of Academic Studies, Professor and Chairman of the Geological and Geography Department, Professor and Chairman of the Geography Department and Director of the Institute of Historical Geography.


After China's reform and opening up, Hou was elected Member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1980. Due to his contributions to academic research, he received the degree of honorary Doctor of Science from Liverpool University in 1984. In 1999, Hou was awarded the distinguished George Davidson Medal by the American Geographical Society. 


Hou's prestige and popularity at PKU may be further illustrated by his popular course "Hou Renzhi Talks about Beijing," which has been a must for PKU freshmen since the 1950s. 


Professor Hou received the "Cai Yuanpei Award" in 2006, the most prestigious award, which is named after late President Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940).


In 2012, the "Renzhi-Weiying book collection" database established by PKU Library was released to celebrate the 101th birthday of Professor Hou. He and his wife Zhang Weiying together donated more than 2000 volumes of books and over 300 maps to the library. Users can get access to the database by clicking the tag named "Hou Renzhi's Book Collection" under the "Special Resource" column on the homepage of PKU library.


Living in No. 61, Yannan Garden, PKU, Professr Hou and his wife often walked around the campus. A stone beside the Weiming Lake was engraved with his handwriting.


the "Weiminghu Lake" in Chinese character written by Professor Hou


Dedications to Beijing

Soon after the birth of New China, Hou Renzhi set about to establish the field of historical geography with Chinese features. First, he participated in the Beijing City Planning Committee. Then, he made further research in Chengde, Handan, Zibo and other historically significant cities. Dedicated himself to the investigation of deserts in Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Gansu, Hou provided valuable information for the planting of sheltering forests in the future. Hou's main research achievements may be found in his book entitled Historical Geography: Theory and Practice.


Hou first encountered Beijing in the summer of 1931 when he began his study at a middle school there (then named Peiping). Years later, Hou recalled according to a Xinhua report: "The moment I came with the surging crowd out of the station and walked into the twilight of Beijing, the towering Zhengyangmen and vigorous city walls suddenly came into my eye... Since that exact moment, a seed has been engraved in my heart." That was when the solid bond was formed between the city of Beijing and Hou Renzhi.


Later, inspired by the field-trips around the city, he finally found his way and focused on geography. With his academic interest, he successfully completed his doctoral degree study with the thesis titled Historical Geography of Beijing.


He was a key figure in efforts to preserve the architecture and cityscapes of old Beijing and integrated them with the emerging modern metropolis. Professor Hou, who not only devoted himself into development of education but also cultivated many talents, should become a model of the whole society.


Initiating China's application for World Heritage

Professor Hou was also a scholar that combined his personal academic interest  with his social responsibility to the country. As the first person to introduce the concept of cultural heritage and world heritage inscription to China, Hou brought the brilliant Chinese culture and the rest of the world to each other. Long before he first came to know about Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage during his visit in the U.S., Hou had accumulated valuable research findings on the history of Beijing city. Based on his previous research as a historical geographer, Hou successfully incorporated China into this World Heritage Committee. Thanks to Hou's efforts, China has now become one of the countries that have the greatest number of world heritage inscriptions.


Reported by: Meng Yiran
Edited by: Zhu Wenjia